On the Way to Hell

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Arriving in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, it kind of feels like I never left from my travels in Central America a year ago.  I'm in a new country but it feels mostly familiar; precariously swerving along dusty mountain roads in an old van, passing fields of sugar cane, rural road side shops and towns, with everyone along the way stopping to stare at the spectacle we foreigners are. The air is hot and sticky, but after this year's long Minnesotan winter it feels incredibly delightful to me.

For the first couple hours of our drive to our destination town, (Sulaco, about four hours south west from the airport we arrived at) I eagerly looked out the windows taking in the new scenery. We stopped once to rearrange all the luggage and engineering equipment that was tied (not very securely) to the top of our van and were able to buy a few coconuts to drink. We giddily passed the coconut waters around in the van and chattered about the adventures to come in the next week. After we settled into the drive and some of my fellow travelers started to dose off, I was reminded of a discussion our group had on the trip here about the ethics of this trip. It stemmed from a lecture that we read by Ivan Ilich about how wrong and harmful it is for Americans to do service trips in developing countries. He referred to the famous Irish saying "the road to hell is paved with good intentions." This same topic of service trips and projects through non-governmental organizations has already come up in at least three of my classes this year, and we go back and forth with this argument. Should we really feel good about swooping in for two weeks to help with a community project or are we simply causing more problems? Well after thinking about this I still haven't come to a clear determination. I think that one thing that sets us apart is that the group of communities that we are working with in Honduras had to apply to Engineers without Borders asking us to help with a water supply project. So if they solicited our help does that make a difference? We are definitely not forcing this on them. Also, even though we are only here in the communities for two weeks, this project has been being worked on from Minnesota since 2009 and had ongoing regular communication with the community (including two previous trips). We also have an organizational commitment to continue working with this project 2 years after it has been implemented. We are going into this project planning to make it sustainable, and maintainable by the community.

While I do agree that many service project and trips can cause a great deal of damage, especially in the after math once the foreigners leave, I still believe that if done correctly with the right conditions, they can be a good thing. But I continue to worry that this is just ideological thinking on my part, my own ignorance and inexperience justifying it. So even though I may not be sure if what this whole project represents will actually do good, what I am sure about is that our group needs to remain aware of and try to avoid, the pitfalls that are easy to fall into coming from an ethnocentric culture to a less developed place. We may be experts in our fields back home, but here we don't know a damn thing about what is best for the communities in particular situations.  Therefore, we need to spend a lot of time listening. We can share with them the work that we have done to prepare and design this project, but they need to be in control of the direction that this project goes. We have put a great deal of time into creating a number of alternative options for the project which we will explain the cost and benefits of to the communities, then let them decide. Over the course of this trip, I am certain that we will be learning a lot from the communities. According to Ilich, it's okay to go to developing countries to travel and study. So at least for me, I can look at this as that I am here to study and learn and will help as much as I can in the mean time.

As we arrived at our hotel, members from each of the communities that we are working with were waiting for us. They surrounded us as we got unloaded out of the car, while many more onlookers leaned over the balconies above to look at us. They embraced us, fed us, and told us how happy they were to see us. And in that moment my good intentions felt right, so for now to hell with them I go.

1 Comment

Really enjoyed reading your blog. Say hi to my son Rob. Can't believe I found someone going on the trip with him but it must be the same one. All he e-mailed today was how hot it was so i appreciate your more descriptive commentary. Hope your trip is mutually beneficial to the locals and volunteers from Mn. Internet cafe in Sulaco? or did you have to travel back to a larger city?

Mary from Wisconsin

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This page contains a single entry by geni0010 published on May 20, 2011 6:10 PM.

On the Road Again was the previous entry in this blog.

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